Monday, March 14, 2011

In Philadelphia, "High Noon"

32 days since the release of the second grand jury report into the Philadelphia chancery's handling of sex-abuse cases, today brings two key moments in the resulting crisis' torrential fallout, both of them to come this afternoon.

At 1pm, the preliminary hearings are scheduled to begin for the two suspended priests, one laicized cleric and a lay teacher accused of abusing two boys in the late 1990s, and -- in the day's marquee proceeding -- the first criminal court-date for a US church official indicted in an alleged cover-up in the scandals' long history on these shores as the archdiocese's former clergy-personnel chief, Msgr William Lynn, faces the bench.

While reports say that the District Attorney's office is requesting to have the pre-trial hearings bypassed given the extensive evidence produced by the grand jury, the defense lawyer for one of the clerics accused of abuse has announced his wish to use the proceeding to cross-examine his client's accuser -- a 29 year-old man currently jailed on theft charges -- in an attempt to undermine the victim's credibility.

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Meanwhile, as the hearing-hour strikes in Center City, a Northeast Philadelphia parish will see the day's more significant moment -- at least, for ad intra purposes -- as an embattled Cardinal Justin Rigali holds his first meeting since the grand jury emerged with a presbyterate that, as never before in this place, has largely gone "off the reservation."

The gathering will be the first of three scheduled to take place over the coming days; originally set for last week, then subsequently delayed, the sessions are being held at different churches across the five-county archdiocese for the clerics' convenience. While the priests were told that there would be an opportunity for questions from the floor, they were encouraged to send their queries to the chancery in advance, at which time they were likewise informed that the meetings were to extend for no longer than two hours each.

Of course, what will happen is anybody's guess. But from conversations with numerous members of the "long black line" over these days, the famously-loyal group's sense of personal devastation and intense dissatisfaction with its leadership -- already sizable in the report's initial wake -- spiked even more after last Tuesday's suspension of 21 of their number.

While some maintained through most of the month that the administration was "doing the best job it could" under immensely trying circumstances, the chancery's handling of the largest single banishment of priests in the history of American Catholicism was said to have left the brothers, seemingly to a man, "appalled" -- so much so that in at least several spots, the archdiocesan statement on the suspensions intended for reading at the weekend Masses was either "chopped up" in the pulpits, or simply unused.

In the "bloodbath's" wake, talk of a presbyteral boycott of Holy Thursday's Chrism Mass -- traditionally the signal annual gathering of the Philadelphia clergy -- has grown considerably, with even the recently-ordained said to be weighing staying home.

On the legal front, with the investigations into the 21 now set to intensify, the lay investigator tapped by the archdiocese to oversee the examination of the files has spoken of her access to the chancery's secret archive and sought to assure the public that her clients "are now listening." Meanwhile, the chair of the archdiocese's lay review board said over the weekend said that the group had only been given seven cases of the 21, adding that the board's recommendations to suspend accused clerics until they were cleared had gone "ignored" by church administrators. And on the civil-law side, victims' attorneys are pursuing a new possibility: that proof of fraud by the chancery would short-circuit Pennsylvania's ironclad statute of limitations, allowing suits against the Philadelphia church to proceed regardless of when they occurred.

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Lastly, though, even if the priests have yet to speak and the fates of the accused remain far from resolution, it would appear that the people have passed their judgment.

In perhaps the starkest sign yet of the mood in the pews, Friday night's penitential service at the city's mother-church saw the cathedra occupied, but the cathedral-basilica astonishingly vacant (above) as the crowd for the Rigali-led rite was estimated at between 50 and 100 in the 1,500-seat space (at least, 1,500 when the folding chairs are out).

Keeping his standard impeccable composure, with his auxiliaries and the basilica's rector -- the only other clerics in attendance -- vested in their black, violet-piped "house cassocks" to symbolize mourning, as the 75 year-old prelate conducted the Stations of the Cross by stopping at points in the cathedral's center aisle, handfuls of the faithful dotted the pews of the nave's front third.

Toward the back, however, it felt like acre after acre of emptiness.

In his homily at the service, the eighth archbishop said that "We know that the expiation of all the sins of the world is accomplished only by Jesus through His suffering, death and resurrection.

"For this reason, we gather this evening in reparation, sorrow and hope, to accompany Jesus on the way of the Cross as He falls beneath the weight of all sins. We also accompany His brothers and sisters, victims of abuse, who like Jesus, bear the weight of the sins committed against them.

"We acknowledge that Jesus alone is the Savior of the world who has the power to forgive, to restore and to heal us all."

As one layman -- a pillar of his parish -- said of his decision to stay away, "I considered attending. I considered it for all of a minute....

"But my absence says more."

And, indeed, so did everybody else's.

Three-quarters Irish by descent, the cardinal's weekend brought fuller crowds as he led the annual Mass for St Patrick's Day prior to the city's parade, and the cathedral saw two packed houses for the Rite of Election.

PHOTOS: Cherri Gregg Mincey/KYW Newsradio(2)